Diversity key focus for sheep producing couple
LIKE many blokes with a passion for the bush, an off-farm income keeps Stanthorpe sheep producer Bruce Toms, on the farm.
Bruce and his wife Meliinda run 1800 breeding ewes on their property, Beltana, a 4600ac holding in the traprock country, in the Pikedale region west of Stanthorpe.
I think prices have peaked and are on the way back down now, hopefully they will stabilise soon.
The chance to run their own operation is something of a dream come true for the couple and their young children, Clancy and Dougal.
But the reality is living the dream relies on Mr Toms spending some time working off-farm in his role as a wool broker and running his own ultra-scan pregnancy testing business.
"We only have a small place so the simple fact is I have to work off-farm."
The couple are both Queenslanders, but worked in Melbourne and then in Victoria's Gippsland, before shifting to Stanthorpe and then three years ago moving to Beltana.
These days they are in the process of building breeder numbers, in an operation which combines merinos, SAMMS (South African Mutton Merinos) and Dohne crossbreeds.
The busy couple favour dual-purpose sheep breeds with the ability to produce fine wool as well as quality meat.
The breeds have been chosen carefully keeping in mind the typically low protein feed conditions of the traprock country.
"One of the biggest changes in the past 10 years has been the introduction of more sheep breeds that suit these types of conditions," Mr Toms said.
"Traditionally this was merino country and a lot of people just ran wethers, which they bought in.
"But the replacement cost of wethers when wool prices were really low made this unviable.
"For it to work you had to be able to sell your aged wethers for the same price you were buying in your young animals."
So Mr Toms said some producers ventured into self-replacing flocks, taking advantage of the increased variety of suitable sheep breeds.
"The change started five or 10 years ago, when people started venturing into Dorpers and Damaras, as part of a swing to more dual-purpose breeds."
But he doesn't think the change has resulted in an increase in the sheep numbers across the Southern Downs.
"No I think the sector is growing at the moment as a result of the different breed options," Mr Toms said.
"I think it is more likely it is 'holding' the industry where it is.
"We will need five years of reasonable stability, before people start looking to come back into sheep."
He said the wild dog problem had also had a significant impact on flock numbers, but he hoped regularly baiting programs (the Pikedale region bait is on again tomorrow) was helping restrain the issue.
"We have had dogs pass through, but to date we have been very fortunate with limited livestock losses," Mr Toms said.
When the Bush Tele spoke with the Toms they were looking skyward for rain with their grass country in reasonable condition thanks to falls a month ago.
"Like most people we could really do with some more rain, but in our case it wouldn't take much for the country to respond," said Mr Toms.
The Toms finished their shearing season in early September and were lucky enough to sell their wool on a rising market during the first week of October.
They sold 18.9 micron wool from their Merino breeders for 908c/kg greasy.
The price was 171c/kg down on what they received for a similar line of wool last year.
Their SAMM/Merino-cross wool was 19.8 micron wool and sold for 784c/kg this year in contrast to the 910c/kg they were paid 12 months ago.
"We sold this year on a rising market, but I think prices have peaked and are on the way back down now, hopefully they will stabilise soon," Mr Toms said.
"It's hard, but I still think people are better off selling wool then holding onto it."
On the breeding front the couple retain all their ewe lambs, but sell the male stock as store lambs.
"We have 1800 breeders now and we are looking to increase our ewe flock to 2000, but there is a time when you are treading water.
"But we will get through it.
"We made the conscious decision to sell our lambs as stores, because with the market like it is, there is no value in buying in feed to fatten or finish them."
Mr Toms is a also member of The Traprock Group and is involved in the organisation of the region's first RamSelect workshop in Stanthorpe to be held later this month.